Friday, 20 December 2013

Are The Witches in Macbeth Evil?

Do the three witches in Macbeth represent more than
pure evil?
Are the witches wicked, old harridans who make Macbeth kill his king? Do they represent temptation? Or are they no different from the soothsayer who tells Caesar to "beware the Ides of march"?

In a comment on my post '5 Interesting Facts About Macbeth', a reader asked whether the three witches could be perceived as evil.

This is a really interesting question, and as I was mulling over how to phrase my response, I realised it was a topic that I could ramble on with for quite some time. So, here goes.

The Nature of Evil in Shakespeare

I think the first point to address is how we go about defining 'evil'. One of the things I love about Shakespeare's characters is they are nuanced, complicated, mixed-up, contradictory and....well, human.

There are very few truly evil characters in Shakespeare's plays. In fact, I can only think of one: Iago. And, let's face it, he would be better described as a psychopath, which begs the question: is he evil or is he ill? Maybe it doesn't matter either way.

But, the point is, there aren't many examples of pure evil in Shakespeare. For instance, Edmund from King Lear has been abandoned by his father and is entitled to no title or lands, simply because he was born out of wedlock. So, while he's undoubtedly a nasty piece of work, we can see how he came to be that way.

What about the witches from Macbeth, are they like Edmund (twisted in a way we can justify or understand) or psychopaths like Iago? Well, that really rather depends on what you consider it is they actually do in the play.

Do the Witches Cause Macbeth to Murder?

Witches are, traditionally, intimate with the devil

All the witches really do, initially at any rate, is tell Macbeth that he will be king.

They don't tell him to go and kill Duncan; they don't even hint that the old man needs to be got out of the way. Those thoughts drift through Macbeth's head without any prompting.

The three witches do however, with one very simple phrase, "thou shalt be king hereafter", start a chain of events that ends horribly for just about all involved. But why would they do that?

They have nothing to gain from Duncan's death or the disastrous state Scotland descends into....unless, of course, you think of them as minions of the devil, which, of course, is exactly what King James I would have believed.

And, I suppose, this is an arguement that could be put forward if you wanted to label the three women 'evil'. By virtue of the fact they are 'witches', they're intimate with demons and are, therefore, by nature, evil. This sounds a little too simplistic for Shakespeare, though, doesn't it?

It also poses a problem in our perception of the play, because if we conclude that the witches are to blame for Macbeth's actions, then he isn't. And if you take away Macbeth's ability to make decisions that will affect his fate, then he loses some of his 'tragic' status.

Are the Witches Able to Foresee the Future?

Like Oedipus, Macbeth makes his own fate
It certainly seems that the three weird sisters know what is lying ahead for Macbeth - their latter prophecies are very specific, if ostensibly a little cryptic.

But if the events of the play are already written, not only does Macbeth take no responsibility for his actions, but the witches don't take any for theirs either.

For one thing, they are simply reporting facts. Fair enough, they're not like the soothsayer, who tries to warn Caesar, but they are really only messengers. And for another, they speak to Macbeth because that's their 'part' in the fate that's already written.

Maybe Macbeth was right, and all the characters are "poor players"; no more than puppets who have lines to speak and scenes to act.

But by taking this view, we remove the 'good' and 'bad' out of everything. Every action simply is what it is, because it has already been determined by some higher power.

Alternatively, we might like to look at the play as self-fulfilling prophecy. Much in the way that Oedipus causes the oracle's prophecy to come to pass by actively trying to prevent it, perhaps Macbeth makes his own fate.

Shakespeare's Weird Sisters Are Complicated

For study help with Shakespeare's
Macbeth, check out the guide

Now, of course, the wonderful thing about this, as with many things in Shakespeare's plays, is that it's open to interpretation. I encourage everybody who has read or seen the play to think about what it is the witches do and whether they can be perceived as evil, and why.

Personally, I wouldn't call them 'evil', for all of the reasons above, but predominantly because the word suggests a dichotomous view of the play. 

The world (and Shakespeare's worlds always reflect this), is not that simple. There isn't mere black and white - in fact, more often than not, there is no black and white at all.

The witches are many things in the play, I've written about a few of them here, and to reduce them to pantomime villains is, it seems to me, to do them and, more importantly, Shakespeare a great disservice.

But what do you think? Let me know your views of the weird sisters.

If you're studying Shakespeare and would like to learn more about Macbeth, check out What's It All About, Shakespeare? A Guide to Macbeth.


  1. A friend of mine has recently published an article on King James's view of witches and demons, and as he was a contemporary of Shakespeare, I've found it interesting to compare your article with his. See here An academic generation gap? | Khanya

    1. Hi Steve,

      For a moment there, I thought you were saying your friend was a contemporary of Shakespeare - I said to myself, 'Gosh, he's doing well!' But no, of course, you mean James. There's no doubt in my mind that the witches were in Macbeth to appeal to James' fascination with the subject. So, it's definitely interesting to look at Daemonologie alongside what Shakespeare's doing in the play.

      Thanks for sharing your friend's article.

  2. who are the men on the horses ?

    1. Sorry for the long time it's taken to reply! The two men are Macbeth and Banquo meeting the witches.